Reviewed by Francine DEMPSEY, CSJ, College of St. Rose, ALBANY, NY 12203
Thandeka, a theologian and Unitarian Universalist minister, ends her text with a prayer for further dialogue in which "Loyalties no longer need be skin-deep. Here God's broken humanity can be healed. Difference can be affirmed as the grace of human engagement. The term 'person of color' will now refer to every human being. Dare we dream of such a day? Yes. Let the church say Amen." (p.135)
That prayer, and particularly the statement that "The term person of color will now refer to every human being," drives Learning to Be White . This is not another analysis of prejudice. Thandeka writes, "I am interested in the way in which the Euro-American child is socialized into a system of values that holds in contempt differences from the white community's ideals. It is this focus on difference that I want to emphasize because when this difference is denied, we find an injury to one's core sense of self, an attack against the child by members of its own community because the child is not yet white." (pp. 17-l8) To expose what is "hidden from view" is her task, a task which she hopes will empower those who have learned to be white that every person is simply a person, a human being.
Thandeka believes that she has recognized a psychological conditioning heretofore neglected. People learn to be white when they are forced to choose between their gut knowledge that persons are persons and someone else's contradiction of that knowledge, someone's insistence that there are white persons and all the others. The contradictory voice is always one in authority who teaches a young Euro-American to be white. Fearing disapproval or loss of love, the victim accepts the teaching but experiences an inner moral "shame."
The writer presents some anecdotal examples of this process. For example, she tells of a young man who joins a fraternity and innocently supports the application of a black student. On orders from the fraternity's national office, the fraternity, choosing between the rightness of its own action and the disapproval of authority figures, expels the black student. Don is the one who tells the black student of this decision. Forty years later he cries while telling this story to Thandeka: "I felt so ashamed of what I did." (p. 1) Dan, says Thandeka, "was a wailer at the wake of his own moral standing." (p. 9) According to traditional studies of racism, such as Gordon Allport's, this rejection of one's own view in order to be loved or approved by a parent or an authority figure leads first to placing the group's view into one's own system of values and then to prejudice.
What Thandeka argues is that "the child cannot help but acquire the suspicions, fears, and hatreds that sooner or later fix on minority groups because of the ways the child learns these feelings: discipline, love, and threat." (p. 17) Although the original acceptance of persons as persons sometimes escapes, "White shame and fear strong-arm it back into place by deadening feeling and extinguishing desire anew." (p. 27)
In addition to anecdotal evidence, Thandeka uses many secondary sources. For example, she takes historian Edward Morgan's findings American Slavery, American Freedom (l975) to argue that poor persons learned to be white during the slavery and reconstruction eras because upper class law-makers told them they were white and therefore different from other oppressed poor and ought to be ashamed to associate with them. This teaching, enforced by laws, prevented the lower class from uniting against the rich. The writer's secondary sources are diverse, including works of psychology, sociology, anthropology, history, autobiography, and fiction.
Thandeka's quotation after quotation style lessens her clarity. However, she challenges traditional interpretations of cultural phenomena like black-face minstrelsy and the Promise Keepers movement. And the reader who has learned to be white is challenged to unpack and rectify the old moral cowardice that has greatly lessened him or her.